Back in Familiar Surrounding

I’m back in my study in Olde North Columbus.  The laptop is on my desk, and I’m typing this while I blare the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool.  After the weekend working at the bookstore, and then making the very roundabout journey to St. Louis and back, it felt even more odd to walk into work this morning than it usually does after a three-day weekend.

I was home by 5 p.m. yesterday afternoon.  I wasn’t exhausted, because I had managed to sleep for most of the Chicago-to-Columbus leg of the trip, but I was quite frustrated, an emotion that I have never handled well.  The Wi-Fi worked less than 90 minutes of the entire journey, and the driver home stopped the bus once or twice because of strange noises he claims he heard the engine make.
The icing on the cake was when we came back to Columbus.  I planned to get off the bus at the OSU Student Union, which is closer to my house than the stop by Nationwide Insurance downtown.  The driver did not know where to drop us off, so we circled the block while some students gave the guy directions.
I cannot say I ate healthily on the trip.  The first rest stop was in St. Paul, Indiana, at Love’s Travel Stop.  (Considering the odd routes on Megabus, it wouldn’t have been impossible for a trip to St. Louis from Columbus to go by way of St. Paul, Minnesota!)  From Chicago to St. Louis, we stopped at the Dixie Travel Plaza in McLean, Ill.
I can say with pride that I managed to do everything on my St. Louis to-do list.  For the first time since 1993, I took the tram to the top of the Gateway Arch, and took some pictures, both to the east (toward Illinois) and the west (at St. Louis itself).  I am glad that I made a reservation online beforehand.  Since this was the last “summer vacation” weekend, the Arch was packed.
The Gateway Arch, photographed from the end of Market St.

I would not recommend a visit to the Arch for anyone with claustrophobic or acrophobic tendencies (acrophobia is the fear of heights).  The claustrophobia would kick in while riding the tram to the observation deck.  The cars in the tram are quite tiny, not much bigger than the handicapped stall in a restroom.  They seat five passengers.  The tram’s actual motion is not bad; the car adjusts itself so that you are never upside down or tilted sideways, much like the seats on a Ferris wheel.

And why would it bother a person with acrophobia?  Being 320 feet in the air does that to a person, I suppose.  (I am not really afraid of heights.  If I have a secure foothold, I can stay in an elevated place indefinitely.  Whenever I get on a ladder to change a light bulb, however, I can’t get down quickly enough!)

I reunited with my friend Alex for the first time in 30+ years.  He travels quite frequently for his job (both in the U.S. and overseas), so it was fortunate that he was in St. Louis at the same time I was, and that we were able to see John.  We had a good visit, reminiscing about common friends in various Unitarian youth groups, mostly in the Midwest.

My literary needs were neglected on the first leg of the trip, from Columbus to Chicago, since the little personal lights on the bus didn’t work, so I was unable to read.  (I am rereading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, plus I also brought along two or three Hard Case Crime novels my friend Robert Nedelkoff gave me.)

I made up for not having access to the printed word after my visit with John and Alex at John’s extended-care facility.  I saw my friend, author Mike Nevins (who publishes as Francis M. Nevins, Jr.), for the first time in over a year.  I met Mike at an Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention in Cincinnati several years ago, and immediately won him over when I told him (truthfully) that I had read Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, the only biography that will ever be written of Cornell Woolrich, the author of “Rear Window” and The Bride Wore Black, among many other works.  Mike accomplished the impossible: writing the life story of a man who had no life.  (After the collapse of his brief and unconsummated marriage, Woolrich was an agoraphobe living in a Harlem residential hotel with his mother.)

Mike and I had dinner at Mi Ranchito, a Mexican restaurant he likes, and I ate quite well.  We had an interesting discussion when I mentioned Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son, had been the commanding officer of Robert Lowry, the novelist from Cincinnati whom I befriended in the early 1990s.  I said that I found it ironic that Elliott Roosevelt had also been a novelist after World War II, writing a series of mystery novels starring Eleanor, his First Lady mother.  Mike scoffed at this, telling me that Elliott Roosevelt used a stable of ghost writers.  (Many people have claimed the same thing about Margaret Truman.  On the short list of suspects was Marietta native William Harrington, best known for Which the Justice, Which the Thief.)

A pilgrimage to Vintage Vinyl proved fruitful, as it always does, but I was quite fortunate this time.  In the $2.99 bin, I found a record, The Voices of the 20th Century (Coral CRL-57308), narrated by Henry Fonda.  My dad found this album for me at a yard sale when I was a teenager, and it disappeared when I left Athens in 1989.  The record was quite a find.  It featured a recording of Edwin Booth reading from Act I of Othello, some test records made by Thomas Edison, and even P.T. Barnum.  Even when I learned of GEMM and 991.com, I could not search for this, because I had forgotten the title, even though I knew the cover.  So I felt very happy to see it in the cheap bin.

Alex was quite amused when John and I told him about our hitchhiking journey to Washington, DC from Marietta in the spring of 1982.  (I retired from hitchhiking after I left Athens.  In high school, I received all kinds of dire predictions from my peers: “Paul, you’re gonna get your head blown off,” and “Paul, someone’s gonna do that Deliverance thing to you and then cut your throat.”)  We also described our trip into Illinois Caverns near Waterloo, where they let us in despite not having hard hats or heavy boots.  The ranger told us to “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time.”

We did bring a compass into the cavern, which was a total waste.  The rocks were so ferrous that the needle was swinging all over the place, not pointing north at all.  John’s friend, who guided this expedition, said that he had taken walkie-talkies down on an earlier trip, but the rock and the depth of the cavern rendered them useless.

I will leave you with this view from the Arch of downtown St. Louis.
With the Old Courthouse in the center, here is a westward-looking view from the observation deck of the Gateway Arch.  This is downtown St. Louis.
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Meandered to St. Louis and Back

The last time I was in St. Louis was in June 1993.  I went with a Cincinnati friend who had an interview at St. Louis University Law School, so I came along to see my old friend John Bilgere.  We saw firsthand the Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993 during the trip, watching the Mississippi River running wild and viewing a completely flooded Laclede’s Landing from the observation deck in the Gateway Arch.

The most recent journey to St. Louis just ended.  Due to modem issues, I was unable to post contemporaneous entries, so now that I’m back at home, I can recount the highlights of the trip.  I took pictures (officially christening my new Kodak EasyShare C143), wrote diary entries, and jotted down notes throughout the entire time I was on the road.

I’ve logged literally tens of thousands of miles on Greyhound since I was a teenager, but this was my first trip anywhere on Megabus.  I have seen their brightly painted blue and yellow double-decker buses downtown and around the Ohio State campus, so I finally decided to try them for this long overdue trip–the first time I have seen John since 2001.

Megabus is not for the impatient traveler.  Besides the reduced price, I thought it would be fun to take a circuitous route to St. Louis.  I have hitchhiked there (from Marietta, in the summer of 1981), and once did a ride-share with someone going from Cincinnati to Kansas City, but otherwise have gone by Greyhound.  All involved straight shots down Interstate 70.

Not this time.  When Megabus emailed me my confirmation and my schedule, I saw that I would be going to St. Louis by way of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago.  Never take a child who says “Are we there yet?” on a Megabus.

I enjoyed the trip thoroughly.  This was the first time I had ever ridden in the upper deck of a double-decker, and I was amused that I, at 5’8¾”, was almost too tall to stand up straight in the aisle.  I felt like I was being carried in a sedan chair as the bus climbed north up High St. through the Short North and the Ohio State area, just as the bars and nightclubs were starting to get busy.

Megabus passengers, at least from what I’ve seen on this little safari, are much more polite than the ones I’ve experienced in my many trips on Greyhound.  If someone had an MP3 player, the volume was low.  Cell phone conversations were in stage whispers.  I was able to doze, write, and read without interruption.  This was a far cry from my 1987 bus trip to California, when four or five guys (whom I knew by sight from O.U.) weren’t happy that the bus was quiet, and decided to serenade everyone by loudly playing the theme from The Andy Griffith Show on their kazoos.

One way Megabus keeps their prices so low is that they have no physical ticket counter and no bus stations.  I picked up the bus Saturday night at the corner of N. High St. and Nationwide Blvd., and, as dawn was breaking, our bus came to a stop on S. Canal St. in downtown Chicago, near Union Station.  It was a warm morning, but I would have had to take shelter in Union Station itself had it been cold or rainy.

There was a billboard on the garage across the street.  Advertising deals on a new condominium  in downtown Chicago, it said, It would suck to miss this!  The same could be said for Megabus, especially if you’re between buses.

The layover was not a boring one.  As I stepped off the bus, I saw a police officer putting two sawhorses across Canal St. where it intersects Jackson Blvd., and saw people standing around on the sidewalk.  I explored the inside of Union Station for awhile, which didn’t take too long, since many areas were restricted to Amtrak ticket-holders only.

Once back outside, I saw that the street was blocked because of the third annual XSport Fitness Rock-N-Roll Mini-Marathon.  After hearing for years about the health-restoring power of running, whether jogging or all-out marathon racing, I become more and more committed to walking.  I took some pictures (both still and video) during the race, and I guess running is the origin of the expression “No pain, no gain.”  I watched the videos after I downloaded them onto the laptop, and almost everyone looks like they’re in agony.


Many people seem to be westbound this weekend.  When it was time to continue the trip, Megabus had two buses at the ready.  The Megabus coach was going straight to Kansas City, without taking on or dropping off any passengers anywhere else.  They called in a charter (not a Megabus) to take passengers who were going to St. Louis, and it was a direct trip south on Interstate 55, except for a lunch break in McLean, a village just outside the Bloomington-Normal city limits

Mike Nevins met me at Union Station on Market St. in St. Louis, when my bus arrived–on time.  He spoke about the condo where he will be living this fall.  (His wife died this spring, and he is moving from their house into a condominium that would accommodate a childless widower much more practically.)  Mike also presented me with a signed copy of Night and Fear, another posthumous collection of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories, which he edited and for which he wrote the introduction.  He gave me a brief tour of the Delmar Loop, which is “One of the 10 Great Streets in America,” according to a 2007 report by the American Planning Association.  I hadn’t been to the Delmar Loop since 1993, so it looked completely different than I remembered it.  (I was relieved to see that Vintage Vinyl, where I spent plenty of money on my 1993 trip–on everything from Dave Brubeck to Pink Floyd to Bach’s Mass in B Minor–is still alive and well.)

My friend John has changed significantly since I last saw him in 2001.  We met at a Unitarian youth conference, OPIK ’79, in August 1979 in Delton, Mich.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky, the states where most of the attendees lived.  The reason the 1979 conference took place in Michigan is a long story I will not go into here.)  I was 16 years old and full of piss and vinegar, and grateful to be away from my father, stepmother, and stepsisters, and meeting entirely new (to me) people.  John and I picked each other, almost by default, in a workshop where you were supposed to pair off with someone you didn’t know previously.  And we’ve been friends since.

John developed multiple sclerosis last year, and initially it was the relapsing and remitting variety, but now it seems to be more degenerative.  He is in a wheelchair, and is living in a skilled care facility a few blocks south of the Delmar Loop.  We caught up on our lives in the last decade, although we have filled the gaps by phone calls and correspondence–both by U.S. Mail and email–throughout.  I knew about his deteriorating physical condition, and he knew about the end of my marriage and my new life as a single father.  The place where he lives is more hospital than apartment, and he is grateful for chances to go out to physical therapy, doctor appointments, and visits with his family.  It was a far cry from the spring of 1982, when he came to visit me in Marietta and spoke of wanting to see Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  He had learned in school that Martha, thanks to the art of taxidermy, was at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Why don’t we go see her?” I asked.  I made a blizzard of phone calls, beginning with  friends at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office, and found some generous friends of friends² who let us sleep in the living room of their D St. NE rowhouse.  The next morning, we marched out to U.S. 50 on the outskirts of Parkersburg and put out our thumbs.  That night, John saw the Capitol dome for the first time.

Our last road trip was the last time I saw him, in November 2001.  He, Rich, and I went down to Hodgenville, Kentucky and saw the site where Abraham Lincoln was born at Sinking Spring Farm.  (John is like me: Both of us have been to where Lincoln was born, and where he was assassinated and the room where he died–he for the first time on our 1982 hitchhiking trip–but not to Springfield, where Lincoln is buried.)

I restrained myself and did not buy anything at Vintage Vinyl, mainly because I wasn’t sure how I’d transport LPs.  As much as I love them, they are clumsy and would not fit in my backpack.  I filled a few pages in my notebook with titles of albums that struck my fancy, and explored the Loop until I walked down to Skinker Blvd. and walked to the MetroLink stop there.  (The MetroLink, St. Louis’ light-rail system, was not there during my previous visit.)  I rode the train to Union Station, and found I had several hours to kill before the 1:15 a.m. departure of my Megabus to Columbus (again via Chicago).  I decided to walk toward the Gateway Arch.

Even as I walked easterly toward the Arch, I was wondering how foolhardy this was.  I was worried that downtown St. Louis would be deserted on a Sunday night, even a warm summer Sunday night, and walking alone with a knapsack would broadcast “out of towner” to any potential thief.  For a block or so down Market St., I felt like a big red neon arrow was following me, but it turned out downtown was anything but deserted.  I knew the Arch would not be open, and I have made two or three trips inside on its tram to the observation deck, but I wanted to see it at night and get a few pictures.

The second of Taylor Swift’s two Scottrade Center concerts was last night, and I had to thread my way through the blocks-long crowd of concertgoers who were leaving.  Most of them were teenage girls, and younger, accompanied by their parents or other adults.  I felt a lot better than I did during my 1992 trip, when I ran into the crowds leaving a Danzig concert at the American Theater.  I saw quite a few kids ask their friends or parents to photograph them by Taylor Swift’s trucks, which were all decorated with the artwork from her current album, Speak Now.

A very small portion of the post-Taylor Swift crowd as they left the Scottrade Center.  Many were behind me when I took this picture, and the crowd (and the cars) stretched far beyond my range of vision.

The Taylor Swift crowd was much better behaved than the crowd leaving Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Colorado Rockies.  I’m glad there was enough down time between the two that the groups did not cross paths.

I slept most of the way northward on I-55 on the return trip.  I had seen the terrain during the trip the day before, and it was dark out, so there wasn’t much to see.  During my Chicago layover, I was amused by the juxtaposition between all the white- and blue-collar people pouring out of buses and Union Station to head to their jobs, and the excruciating, though comparatively carefree, hurrying and rushing of the runners on Sunday morning.

Once the bus was southbound on Interstate 65 toward Indianapolis, the driver got on the speaker and told us that we’d be heading straight to Columbus after Indianapolis, which meant a straight shot east on I-70.  I was pleased, because I knew that meant we’d pass through Henry County, where my stepmother’s parents lived after their retirement.  (During our visit in 1978, I decided to hike from their house in Spiceland to New Castle, nearly eight miles north on Indiana State Road 3.  I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic; I just wanted to get the hell away from everyone.)

The only diversion in the small town was watching teenage boys trying to puncture Spiceland’s water tower with their BB guns.  I guess we all need a Sisyphean task to make life truly worthwhile.  One time I actually heard a BB make contact with the water tower, and we all waited to hear the sound of water trickling.  (The BB bounced against the metal and flew off, of course, but what did we know of ballistics?)

I told John this story at another Unitarian youth conference, this one in Western Pennsylvania.  Years later, when he came to visit me in Columbus, he said he had a surprise for me.  It was a picture of the Spiceland water tower that he had taken on a previous journey on I-70!

With My Final Reserves of Energy, I Drag Myself to the Laptop to Chronicle My Weekend

I’m sitting at my overly cluttered desk with The Moody Blues (the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour album).  Truly riding on fumes here, but I realize I haven’t written in here in a week, so–even if no one else is reading–I’m going to post to try and restore my mental and physical energy level.

On Monday, Steve and I took Susie to Girlz Rhythm ‘n’ Rock Camp at Hoover Y-Park in Lockbourne, about 18 miles from us.  This is her second year there.  Girls aged 8-18 come together to form bands, write music, learn to perform it, and put together complete stage performances.  Unfortunately, after we dropped Susie off, Steve made good on his promise to get me to work promptly afterwards.

I’m sure Suzie Simpson (the director) and her volunteers kept the girls running around to all hours, until they fell over from exhaustion.  My week was packed to the rafters with work, since my co-worker is on vacation the entire week, which doubled my workload considerably.

So how did I unwind?  By cramming Saturday with one activity after another.  Our friend Cynthia drove me down to Lockbourne Saturday morning to see the girls’ performance and take Susie back to Columbus.  Susie surprised me when I saw her onstage at the Yamaha keyboard while singing lead vocals for Moonlight Band.  (She had to sing two vocals, since one of the girls in her band left the camp by emergency squad on Friday, apparently with appendicitis.)

The littlest kids’ song had everyone in stitches.  I didn’t catch all the lyrics, but the gist of it was “Leave me alone, get out of my life,” and the refrain included “When I see you, I want to vomit.”

Susie at the Yamaha, awaiting the cue to begin.

Only one finale was appropriate: a very spirited rendition of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll.”
They love rock and roll!

Susie and I went to the Whetstone Library once we were back in Columbus.  The outdoor performance was racing the sky, which was darkening every minute.  Steph and her friend Joanna had come down separately from us, and headed back to Columbus as soon as the performance ended.  Cynthia, Susie, and I stayed for the potluck.  (Unfortunately, I didn’t get any of the blackberry pie that Cynthia contributed.)  By the time we were back in Columbus, it was raining.
I didn’t realize just how exhausted I was until Susie and I came home from the library.  I lay down for about 45 minutes, and then jumped on the COTA bus northbound to the Noodle Company, across from Graceland Shopping Center.  Pulpfest was this weekend at the Ramada Plaza Hotel on Sinclair Road.  I went to it last year–its first year in Columbus–but didn’t go this year.  (I wrote about the ’09 show in my LiveJournal blog here.)
Since I met him at an Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention in Cincinnati in 2006, I try to see Mike Nevins any time our paths intersect.  Long before I ever met him in person, I had bought his Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, which chronicles the wretched life of the author of “Rear Window” and The Bride Wore Black.  Last year, he was our dinner guest, and since I couldn’t make it to PulpFest, Steve and I met him for dinner at Noodles.  Mike talked about his forthcoming book, Cornucopia of Crime, in which he analyzes the works of many popular 20th-century crime novelists, such as John D. MacDonald, Cleve Adams, and Erle Stanley Gardner.  (We all had quite a discussion about Perry Mason in its various incarnations.  This started when I opined that Hamilton Burger had to be, without question, the most incompetent attorney in American history.)  All the characters of the Perry Mason series grew and changed with the times, of course.  I always remembered Raymond Burr in the courtroom with “But, Mr. Phillips, if you were in San Diego that night, as you claimed, how could you have known…”

Steve headed home, and Mike back to the hotel for a PulpFest event.  I’ll probably see him in Cincinnati next spring at the radio convention.  He planned to head home to St. Louis early Sunday morning.  (Mike publishes under the name Francis M. Nevins, and has written several mystery novels, including Beneficiaries’ Requiem and Publish and Perish.  He is a retired professor of copyright law at St. Louis University.)

Mike Nevins and me, post-repast at Noodles Company.
Not sure why we look so solemn.
Through the miracle of Facebook, I was invited by a friend of a friend ad infinitum to a “Meet Our House” party on Medary Ave.  It was truly a wonderful occasion, christening the Judi Bari House (named in honor of the Earth First! activist who died in 1997).  No one there knew me by name, although when I introduced myself to one of the hosts, he recognized my post to the event’s Wall.  (I wrote: “Only in Clintonville can you have a calendar like this: 1. Pick up daughter at summer camp; 2. Have dinner with mystery novelist in town for PulpFest; 3. Go to radical activist house warming party in evening.”)  I walked into a crowded, but still comfortable living room, and everyone was drinking beer.  I felt a little presumptuous, but I went straight to the kitchen and filled up a cup with water, which was all I drank all night.  (I truly overdid it on the Diet Coke during my dinner with Mike Nevins, and had tried to walk some of it off between dinner and the party, so I wouldn’t be quite as wired.)

A lesson I never learned when I was in Athens was that booze isn’t what makes the party.  It’s the people, and I met quite a few people I hope will become friends, and not just in the loose form of the word that all the social networking sites use.  I spoke with different people–male and female–at different stages in jobs and education, many at the crossroads.  (One woman has a very circuitous journey planned for the next several months.  She plans to become a laborer at The Farm, the Tennessee intentional community, and from there to move into a squat in Brooklyn.)  The music consisted almost entirely of very unorthodox dance mixes and hybrids of disparate sound files.  I am not a dancer, so I remained on the porch or in the kitchen, where I could actually hear myself think.

I was home around 3 a.m.  Steph was sound asleep, but I was too wired to sleep.  I considered blogging, but I made a stab at writing in the holographic diary and finally fell asleep around dawn.  I had wanted to go to church, but when I woke up, I realized I wasn’t going to make it.

Now the work day looms before me, and I still want to write up the day’s events in the diary, especially since I’m down to the last seven pages in the composition book.